Understanding Privilege: Just being nice is not enough

A Story of Privilege I’m almost too ashamed to share

The following story is one of which I am ashamed. But it must be told. More to the point, I must tell it. I have spent months trying to gain an understanding of White Privilege from the point of view of those whose privilege coin landed on tails. It turns out that I had been looking in the wrong place.

Today I spoke with a friend of mine, we’ll call him Mark, whom I have known for nearly thirty years. We had a great conversation with the usual pleasantries and questions about families etc. Then Mark told me a story that only a good friend can. A story about damage that I had done a long time ago. About hurt that I had caused a person I had considered a friend; a classmate of ours named Tariq (not his real name). The passage of time does not make the pain I caused any less stinging nor does my age at the time (fifteen) excuse my conduct. The sad thing is that until today I had long thought that my interactions with Tariq in High School had been a positive ones. I had thought that, if he remembered me at all, he would remember me fondly.

Awkward in Anytown

The year is 1992 and I, along with both friends from this story, are sophomores in high school in Anytown, USA. Like a lot of our classmates I was more than a little self conscious. Being a fat kid with bad skin has its perks you know. And I was painfully nervous around any girl who resided outside my tight circle of friends. In spite of these fairly typical teenage social handicaps I remember those years fondly. I had a great core group of friends with whom I did nearly everything. Beyond this small circle from the neighborhood, I also enjoyed a larger group of close-but-not-quite-as-close friends with whom I interacted on a daily basis. Life was good. For me.

Tariq and Habib

If I recall correctly, Tariq and I shared a few classes.  We were also in the same scout troop, and I think we went to the same church, so even though we weren’t super close, we saw each other frequently and enjoyed what, until this afternoon, I thought was a good relationship. Now, being a fun, friend making kind of guy, I liked to make people feel as comfortable as possible. One of the ways I’ve always done this is by giving people nicknames. Most of these nicknames weren’t all that clever. A stupid inside joke, an intentionally mispronounced  last name,  calling a big guy “Tiny,” that sort of thing. Having lived my entire life with a  nickname and having always been a fan of self-deprecating humor I thought nothing of these nicknames and their affects. They were just my thing.
I learned today that with Tariq things were a bit different. At some point, I took to calling him Habib, a name I would later learn means friend or loved one, but was for me at the time, a generic, and I thought harmless, term for someone of Middle Eastern descent.  Now Tariq, in addition to being the son of a refugee, was an extremely nice guy. So nice in fact that rather than correct my insensitivity he just pretended to let it roll off of his back. From my point of view, Tariq was my friend and calling him Habib was no different than me being called Heavy. It was a sign of friendship. That’s what I thought. That was my privilege.

What I didn’t think about

My attempt at friendship was in fact a source of pain for my friend. My attempt to make Tariq feel like a welcome part of my social circle, was in fact calling attention to the very thing that made him feel like an outsider. Before anyone tries to let me off the hook by saying “Oh, its just a bit of name calling. It happens all the time, boys will be boys,” or some crap like that, I must tell you the worst part. The worst part is all the things I didn’t know, and still don’t know.
Had my friend been hung in a bathroom stall unconscious like an eight year old Somali boy in Kentucky in 2011? I don’t know. Had he been made to answer for the atrocities committed by people thousands of miles away who Tariq could never have known like a 12 year old in Columbus, Georgia? I don’t know. Had he been labeled a terrorist in the yearbook just because his name was different like Bayan Zehlif in California? I don’t know. Had anyone ever threatened to shoot Tariq on the bus because he was a terrorist like a Vandalia, Ohio boy? Had Tariq ever walked proudly into a school like Ahmed Mohammad did one day, carrying a homemade clock only to be arrested for bringing a bomb to school? The fact is I just don’t know. I sadly didn’t know then either. And I never thought to ask.

My Shame

My shame stems not from the insensitivity of the nickname I bestowed on my friend. As much as I regret caricaturing my friend, I did so in a sincere attempt at friendship. No, my shame comes from calling Tariq my friend and not caring enough to see the pain that I and others were causing him. Not until much later did I peel back my privilege enough to think about what my friend may have faced. I’d like to think that Tariq didn’t face such torment because I didn’t witness it. And that may be true. But it is also possible that from my position of privilege I didn’t see the torment because I didn’t have to. I could go on assuming that nobody’s problems were any worse than mine.
This has been a difficult story for me to tell but as a progressive I believe that we must all face our past, for better or worse, and learn from it. Only when we own our shortcomings can we grow past them. Happily, unlike many such stories this one has a happy ending. My friend, to whom I apologized this evening, has grown past any torment he may have faced to become a Doctor and is now, as he as always been, a wonderful American. At least I think he has, now I think I’ll ask him.
A Progressive Patriot